Anika Walke (Washington University in St. Louis)
“Witnessing and Remembering the Holocaust in Belarus”
The Republic of Belarus raises unique questions regarding the structure of Holocaust memory: it shares the experience of occupation, collaboration, and genocide with many other European countries, but it stands out because the targeted mass murder was embedded in a more diffuse assault on the whole population and because it took place in or near people’s hometowns. After the war, the destruction of Jewish communities was not featured prominently in Soviet postwar commemorative practices that favored the memory of heroic military fighters and the victory over fascism. This discursive repression persists in independent Belarus, where war memory is largely oblivious to issues of local participation and the erasure of the rich Jewish past.
The lecture considers genocide as an assault on memory and explains how the Nazi genocide impinges on current forms of commemoration; for instance, why Jewish mass graves are excluded from commemorative practices and local Jewish history is rarely known to local populations. Combining various sources, including oral history and other testimonies, archival documentation, photographs and maps, offers a new perspective on the nature and potential of witnessing and remembering the Holocaust in the East.
Panel I: Witnessing through the Arts
Adam Sax (University of Pennsylvania)
“Witnessing the Unresolvable: Ekphrasis Through Analogy”
This paper integrates contemporary work in the fields of photography and ekphrasis/ word-and-image studies to interrogate uses of Holocaust photography and assumptions of what can and cannot be evidenced or witnessed in or from such artifacts. Through Claus Clüver’s definition of ekphrasis as “the verbal representation of a real or fictitious text composed in a non-verbal sign system,” a definition which refuses “to distinguish between texts that are read as “art” and texts that are not” (26), I approach ekphrasis of Holocaust photography, created to document rather than as “art,” as “speaking” through the text, rather than for it. Through theoretical works of Roland Barthes, Douglas Crimp, and Kaja Silverman, I argue for an understanding of ekphrasis as text that leads the reader outside the “frame” of the photograph, through an interaction of similarity and dissimilarity. This embrace of discontinuity attends to Silverman’s conception of analogy, which “contains both similarity and difference. Similarity is the connector, what holds two things together, and difference is what prevents them from being collapsed into one” (11-12). I conclude with a close-reading of Frank Daba Smith’s children’s book My Secret Camera, a series of ekphrases on photographs selected from the archive of the Lodz Ghetto photographer Mendel Grossman. It is through this word-and-image work and recent criticism of it that I move into an argument of the “speaking through” of ekphrasis as opposed to a “speaking for,” condemned most famously by Gayatri Spivak, whose essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” I work with to argue for the subalternaity of the Jew in the Lodz ghetto. Through the creation of analogies that go beyond the immediate or periphery of the photograph, Holocaust ekphrasis provides an alternative form of witnessing the Shoah, of witnessing that which is past and therefore “unwittnessable,” that embraces the liminal space of the unresolved and unresolvable.
Alexandra Birch (Arizona State University)
“Shostakovich, Babi Yar, and Holocaust Commemoration in a Soviet Consciousness in Music”
Study of the Holocaust in the East is fraught with conflicting ethnic identities, cases of dual victimhood, and changing perspectives of complicity. I examine musical commemorative works from immediately post-WWII through 1991 in the former USSR. I detail what types of composers were writing these works, if ethnicity or gender of the composer contributes to perception and dissemination of the piece, and if these pieces were intended for “dissident” or explicit performance. Furthermore, I address what constitutes a commemorative work, what are the narratives of these commemorative pieces of music, and how does this narrative contribute to or contradict the Soviet ideology of the Great Patriotic War. I am particularly interested in narratives from Ukrainian, Belarusian, and occasionally, Polish composers and how this interacts with conflicting national narratives about the Holocaust and dual victimhood under the Soviets and the Nazis. I consider the Hitlerian viewpoint of Slavic people, as well as the Soviet internal racial class systems in examining the publication, performance, and distribution of commemorative music. With what constitutes a commemorative work, conflicting national narratives, and the composers performed, I will take samples from different eras of the USSR including Zhdanovshchina, the Thaw, and Brezhnev, and look comparatively at both major cities and rural, and port city performances. I also consider what it means to be “dissident” and how that perception factors in commemoration. Music as a memory and reflection of trauma often can provide insight into politically fraught situations at the human level.
Justas Stoncius (Klaipeda University)
“The Movies as a Palimpsest of the Holocaust Memory in Soviet Lithuania”
After World War II the movies related to the Jewish theme were eliminated from the Soviet cinematography. Even though there were episodes of Jews’ massacres executed by Nazis, the word ‘Jews’ was never mentioned. Due to “internationalized” Holocaust, as a nation, the Jews ended up outside of the screen and became implicit characters, making the Jews “share” the victim status with other “peaceful citizens”. The concept of “Holocaust without Jews” came into life because the Jewish origin of the victims’ could have been identified only through implicit allusions of the movies in Lithuanian SSR (archival material of Jews’ mass killing, ghettos, and concentration camps). As audiovisual representations of the past, movies had a tendency to distort the Holocaust and “eliminate” it from the history. Furthermore, considering the concept of “Holocaust without Jews”, USSR government refused to accept the fact that Jews were the target group of the Third Reich genocide politics. The Holocaust representation in the movies of the Lithuanian SSR was in line with the ideology of the Soviet historical memory. The implicit allusions of Holocaust were purely symbolic and were only minor elements in the background of the main plot of the Lithuanian SSR cinematography. While a neighbour country Poland had many examples of Jews characters in the movies, there were no Jewish images in the Soviet Lithuanian film studio. Thus, the current research sought to verify the hypothesis that ideologized “fascist crimes” had supported the distorted perception of Holocaust in Lithuanian collective memory. The study contributed to the explanation of how Jews massacres manifested in Lithuanian SSR movies and, consequently, how it could have made an impact to Lithuanians insensitivity towards Jews in the country after the independency was regained.
Panel II: Complicity and Perpetration
Robert Kunath (University of Illinois)
“Ambiguous Witness: Helmuth Groscurth, the Massacre of the Children at Bila Tserkva, and the Interpretive Narrative of Holocaust Perpetrators”
One of the most notorious incidents in the history of the Holocaust took place in the Ukrainian village of Bila Tserkva in August 1941, when the Operations Officer of the 295th Infantry Division, Lieutenant Colonel Helmuth Groscurth intervened to stop the murder of ninety Jewish children by subunits of Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C. Senior commanders of the German Army refused to back Groscurth, and Ukrainian militia under the command of the SS shot the children two days later. The documents generated by this incident, especially Groscurth’s report to senior army commanders, have frequently been anthologized, the incident appears in dozens of books on the Holocaust, and it figured prominently in both versions of the Wehrmacht Exhibition in Germany. But the interpretation of the incident continues to be debated. Despite the general criticism of Daniel Goldhagen’s claim that extreme German anti-Semitism was the sufficient cause of the Holocaust, many accounts of Holocaust perpetrators over the last fifteen years have emphasized ideological anti-Semitism more strongly. Yet the incident at Bila Tserkva is far more polyvalent than many of its contemporary interpreters concede. One of the best reflections on the incident is Saul Friedländer’s essay from 2002, but even he identifies in the story a “total absence of any trace of humanness.” All too often the incident has been interpreted on the basis of the classic, anthologized documents. An examination of the dynamics of the incident placed in larger historical and documentary contexts suggests a wide range of human motives that correspond remarkably well to those identified by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem. The paper is based on rich archival sources, including the Groscurth papers in the German Military Archive in Freiburg and the testimony from the trial of the SS commander who oversaw the killing of the children, as well as the extensive historical literature on the criminality of the Wehrmacht.
Alana Holland (University of Kansas)
“But I myself didn’t shoot Jews”: Holocaust Witnesses and Perpetrators in the NKVD Interrogation Cell in Soviet Lithuania”
In 1952 from the gulag, Jurgis Žitkus wrote to the head of the Soviet Ministry of State Security (MGB), Lavrentiy Beria, asking him to pardon crimes he had committed during the war. In 1944 the Soviet Lithuanian NKVD sentenced Žitkus to the gulag for “punitive activity against Soviet citizens” for assistance in the murders of Jews in the area of Trakai, Lithuania. Žitkus denied his own guilt: “The only thing for which I might be guilty is that I was an involuntary witness to all of the horrors and evils—but was there even one person during the German occupation who was not a witness to all of these horrors? Aren’t all of these people then also guilty, and shouldn’t they also be tried in court like me?” In trying to deflect guilt from accusations of a specific crime, Žitkus subconsciously articulated a complicated issue: the relationship between witnessing and complicity in the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. Communist and Soviet war crimes trials help scholars understand dynamics of witnessing the Holocaust in the east. This paper primarily analyzes witness and perpetrator testimony recorded during interrogations of ordinary citizens and members of auxiliary battalions in Lithuania by the Soviet NKVD from 1944-52. What did non-Jews under interrogation have to say about themselves and others concerning the fate of Jews during the war as local war crimes trials commenced shortly after Soviet liberation from German occupation? Moreover, how did the Jewish victims who sometimes testified at trial against perpetrators articulate their experiences? This paper is part of my dissertation project on postwar confrontation with the loss of Jewish communities in the Polish-Soviet west. Witnesses generally articulated the particularity of crimes against Jews, but distinguished guilt in “murder-event acts” (personally shooting Jews) from complicity in “assistance-acts” (e.g., guarding the area while a shooting happened). Understandings of citizenship as conceived in Soviet nationality policy ensured that crimes against Jews were punished and openly discussed in NKVD cells and courtrooms, despite obfuscation at the interpretive level.
Josh Klein (University of Maryland College Park)
“Categories of Complicity: Historiography and the Holocaust in the East”
This paper will attempt to highlight an unresolved theoretical issue in the study of what this conference is calling ‘the Holocaust in the East’. In particular, it will illustrate how this nascent field has engendered a subtle historiographical divide over opposing interpretations of complicity and cause in the Holocaust. The Holocaust in the East was unique in the disproportionate direct participation of Eastern Europeans. In this way, one might argue that the Holocaust in the East was precisely the opposite of ‘(un)witnessed’. And coming to terms with Eastern European complicity in the Holocaust has consequences, too often underdeveloped in the scholarship, for how/if we historicize the Holocaust. It is especially important to consider how the recent literature concerning the extent of Eastern European complicity in the Holocaust fits in with the notion of a uniquely German, or even Nazi, genocide. In other words, lurking underneath the delineation between a Holocaust of ‘camps’ vs. ‘bullets’ is a historiographical divide between Germanists and Eastern Europeanists, a divide which rests on opposing interpretive categories of complicity: German/Nazi, Eastern European, or even national particularity (e.g. Ukrainian, Lithuanian, etc…). The following paper will be a critical historiographical review of some of the important scholarship in this emerging literature on Eastern European complicity in the Holocaust with a specific focus on how this scholarship has struggled to integrate its findings and interpretations into German studies. This has resulted in separate and enclosed literatures. Like ships passing in the night, the ‘Holocaust in the East’ and the Germanist historiography repeatedly neglect to incorporate their findings. Consequently, there is too little recognition of, and engagement with, the theoretical implications their arguments have for one another.
Panel III: Vehicles of Memory
Annette Finley-Croswhite (Old Dominion University)
“Un(B)earable: Pregnant Bodies and Genocide in the East”
Atrocities involving assault on pregnant women, sterilization, forced abortion and infanticide reflect specific gendered violence meted out to Jewish women during the Holocaust. The literature exploring the Nazi attack on Jewish wombs, however, is underdeveloped, and estimates for Jewish lives aborted under duress, killed at birth, shot or gassed in utero have never been undertaken. Jewish law further complicates the discussion of pregnancy and Holocaust because it subordinates the fetus to the mother and assigns no identity to the child before its head crowns in the birth canal even while disapproving of causing deliberate harm to the fetus especially in the context of bringing trauma to the mother. Evidence also exists showing that assault on Jewish reproduction involved targeting the pregnant body meaning that Jewish women also endured, sought out, or performed abortions out of self-preservation. Many suffered post-traumatic stress long afterwards while some survivors were permanently damaged and later unable to conceive or bear children. This paper explores narratives of assault on the Jewish pregnant body in the East and post-Holocaust trauma tied to gynecological assault. It does not engage in moral debate about abortion but conceptualizes the elimination of the pregnant body as an intrinsic part of Nazi medical genocide. The paper is based on survivor testimony tied to Eastern European experiences collected at various locations including the Archives of the State Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as memoires of Jewish doctors who were forced to work in the ghettos and camps. Demographic data drawn from questionnaires of survivors is also used. Mathematical formulas provide critical insight into unrecorded data on unborn children, and it is argued that Jewish law actually helps account for these unborn children. Research findings reintegrate pregnant histories into the Holocaust narrative and reincorporate traumatic memories into post-Holocaust understanding of gendered suffering.
Karl Krotke-Krandall (Washington State University)
“Alternative Narratives in Holocaust Memory in the East”
Historian Peter Novick has argued that Jews residing in the western world, specifically in the United States and Israel, have pursued a single narrative about the Jewish memory of the Holocaust. They claimed that the Holocaust was a singularly defining event in Jewish history. It was an event like no other and as such is deserving of its language, remembrance, and memorialization. Novick contends that Western Jews have continued to perpetuate this narrative through language, education, and memorial building. Political narratives play a role in collective memory framework creation. This paper argues that an examination of interviews, memoirs, and personal testimonies by Russian and Eastern European Jews show that the memory of the Holocaust is not an all-encompassing event used to define them. The generational transmission of collective memories of the Shoah by Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe is far more complicated because of the influence of political narratives that interact within their lives. Thus, this paper will demonstrate how alternative narratives have interfered with the memory of the Holocaust for Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe. Their collective memories of the Shoah may not lie in just the 1939 invasion of Poland, but in acts of violence experienced by Jews in the late 19th century and through the Soviet era. This paper will show the preliminary findings of this research on Jewish memory in this region and how it differs from the collective memory frameworks of Jews that existed outside of the Iron Curtain. By exploring the generational collective memory of this Jewish body, historians can understand an alternative narrative of Holocaust memory.
Simon Goldberg (Clark University)
“Reckoning with the (Un)witnessable: Real-Time Writings on Holocaust Trains”
Does the deportation train have a place in the historiography of the Holocaust in the East? While not “sites” in the East per se, Nazi perpetrators couched victims’ train journeys in the sly, euphemistic language of “resettlement” or “relocation” eastward. Hauled onto boxcars and immobilized, Holocaust victims were left to reckon with (often conflicting) narratives about the train’s destination. To an extent, the obscurity deportees faced mirrors the obscurity that still shrouds the Holocaust train car. As a point of departure, this paper will contend that, similar to the atrocities in the East, victims’ real-time experiences on the trains have remained largely unwitnessable—locked in a space between West and East, departure and arrival, whose memory has been excised. Scholarship pertaining to Holocaust transport has focused on its logistical aspects and procedural centrality to the Final Solution—what necessarily buries the struggle and agency of deportees. Postwar testimonies are limited, too; typically, when survivors relate to train transit from the perspective of the known camp destination, they obscure the unknowability of time and place that animated deportees’ predicament. In an effort to restore a measure of historicity to Holocaust transports, this paper will spotlight letters and postcards that deportees wrote while on their way to the death camps—and threw out from the trains. Anchoring my analysis in these striking testimonies of witnessing, I will argue that two phenomena characterized deportees’ train journeys—and ought to figure in our discourse of this “space”: first, that deportees’ struggle with the profound uncertainty engendered by the “East”—and other conceptions of “resettlement”—represented a key facet of their anguish. Second, that despite the oppressive bodily and sensory assaults of the train, deportees fought to reclaim their agency through writing, in order to make representable what appeared beyond the limits of representation.